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By Miriam Raftery

July 7, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – If a bill passed by the Assembly and by a key State Senate Committee becomes law, San Diego County residents could be forced to pay for development of massive wind and solar projects in rural East County through property taxes—even though the projects are opposed by numerous area residents.

Sponsored by San Diego legislators Ben Hueso and Juan Vargas, AB 2551 would provide a fresh source of funding for energy companies pushing large wind and solar projects, since federal subsidies expire at year’s end. Both Vargas and Hueso have accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the electric utilities industry. 

The bill has drawn outraged reactions from key community leaders, who note that backers have vested interests in massive-scale energy projects and transmission lines proposed here. The measure is also opposed by the California Taxpayers Association and the California Association of Realtors.

But supporters claim the bill will assist local governments by allowing local property taxes to be used for renewable energy in the region, also providing a way to help the state reach its goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

AB 2551 would allow a legislative body such as the County  or any city to establish an infrastructure financing district in a renewable energy zone area to fund renewable energy projects. In addition, the bill exempts creation of the district from voter approval, even though a two-thirds voter approval is now required by law to form an infrastructure finance district.  The measure is authored by Assemblyman Ben Hueso, a San Diego legislator who does not represent East County, and is coauthored by Senator Juan Vargas, whose district includes southern portions of East County. 

Under the bill, a “renewable energy zone” can include any area with proposed development of over 10 megawatts of renewable energy projects including but not limited to solar, wind and geothermal energy.   The bill even gives legislative bodies the power to lump together non-adjacent zones in order to aggregate total megawatts from several areas.

Over 40 industrial-scale wind and solar projects are proposed in San Diego’s inland areas,  as well as new transmission lines and substations to connect those projects. 

“AB 2551 was initiated by vested interests with numerous commercial industrial energy/transmission projects proposed,” stated Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and an officer in citizens’ groups including Protect Our Communities Foundation.  Tisdale has led efforts to oppose plans to turn rural East County into what  she calls an “energy sacrifice zone.”  Tisdale made the remarks in a letter to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which passed the bill on July 3.

She included a map showing cumulative impacts and a description of cumulative project footprints in her portion of the county alone from numerous mammoth-scale projects that threaten to change forever the character of East County.

The bill is sponsored by the East County Renewables Coalition (ECRC). According to Tisdale’s letter, “According to my direct knowledge from chairing local land use meetings with interaction with project applicants…ECRC includes numerous absentee developers of wind and solar projects.” 

The Legislative Analyst’s information on the bill shows support has shifted.  In earlier legislation actions, the bill had support from numerous industry sources including Hamann Companies of El Cajon, whose Rough Acres Ranch in Boulevard was used as a staging area for Sunrise Powerlink; 13 turbines in the Tule Wind project are also proposed on Hamann’s property.  Another sponsor that was listed initially was Nakao Inernational C&E, which lists wind turbines among its import products.  RBF Consulting, a national construction firm, TSAC Engineering, and Wally’s World, a nursery in East County, are among other supporters that dropped off after opponents of the bill raised concerns over vested interests by the bill’s supporters.

Opponents have raised serious concerns over the impacts of multiple large energy projects on the environment, health of residents, and heightened fire danger in a region that relies on just two volunteer fire departments and one Cal Fire station to cover hundreds of miles of wildfire-prone lands.

Leroy J. Elliott, tribal chairman of the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, has notified county planners in a June 6, 2012 letter that people on his tribe’s reservation are experiencing health problems believed to be caused by the nearby Campo tribe’s wind turbines. He voiced concerns over health risks associated with “living next to high voltage wind turbines, transmission lines and infrastructure.”

 Tribal members are now undergoing a health impact study through the California State University, San Marcos.  Stray ground voltage in the tribal hall and church have been measured at 1,000 times normal by a prominent epidemiologist who linked the dirty energy to the wind facility nearby.

Electromagnetic frequencies from high voltage lines have been linked to high rates of childhood leukemia and other illnesses.

“The real public health and safety issues related to so many concentrated energy generating and transmission projects, each covering about 200-15,000 local acres, are unknown—or undisclosed,” Tisdale said.

She concludes, “We are lab rats in a not-so-grand and very alarming experiment.”

While the industry claims no health problems are caused by wind turbines, evidence to the contrary is mounting and has been reported in health and scientific journals, as ECM reported previously in a story titled Wind Spin: Blowing Holes in Industry’s Denial of Health Impacts.  Around the world, people living near turbines report similar symptoms including heart palpitations, ear pain, headaches and sleeplessness.  In Brown County, Wisconsin, the Department of Health and County Supervisors have sought emergency state funding to relocate families near turbines who became ill.

Backcountry residents also object to despoilment of rural character, views, and the environment from hundreds of turbines each as tall as a 40 or 50 story building, each with massive concrete footings and large areas cleared of foliage due to fire danger.  Fear of fire is also a huge concern from new transmission lines  in San Diego’s East County,  where transmission lines sparked some of the worst wildfires in California history in the recent past. Wind turbines have also been known to catch fire.

Another big concern is the cumulative impact on wildlife.  Wind turbines have killed thousands of golden eagles at the Altamont Wind Farm alone. Turbines nationally have been responsible for many other bird and bat deaths.  Avian radar touted by the industry is unproven and moreover, the U.S. military has found that wind turbines actually interfere with radar for aviation.

Habitat encroachment could threaten endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, some wildlife experts fear, as well as other threatened or endangered species.  Infrasound produced from turbines can interfere with communication by some animals and wildlife can be subject to the same health impacts that humans experience, potentially causing species to fail to reproduce, and there are other disturbing indications that wind projects can cause harm or even death to wildlife, as ECM has reported. 

Disturbingly, the federal government recently began issuing “take” permits authorizing wind energy companies to kill endangered species including eagles and bighorn sheep.   Some large solar farms have also been found to incinerate birds, as ECM has reported.

Proximity to wind energy projects has also  been shown to negatively impact property values by up to 40% three miles away, an appraiser who conducted studies on the issue recently concluded. 

In addition, Native Americans have expressed sorrow at the desecration of sacred sites including burial grounds, artifacts, ancient geoglyphs and ceremonial sites from massive wind projects.  After their pleas fell on deaf ears as BLM and Imperial County officials approved the project, tribal members carried their protest to the gates of Pattern Energy earlier this year and announced a lawsuit filed by Quechan. After a federal judge denied a temporary restraining order sought by the Quechan tribe, multiple tribes held a vigil at the site and later, a wake to mourn ancestors at which members of eight tribal nations and the public joined together to express grief over the devastation at a wind site in Ocotillo.  

If you wish to voice your views to our region's state senators and to the bill's author, you can find their contacts in our Citizens Action Center.